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50+ Tools & Techniques to Remove Image Backgrounds in Photoshop, pt 1

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There are probably hundreds of different ways to remove backgrounds in Photoshop, and this guide aims to show you many basic ways to do just that. Get started with the basics here.

Photoshop has so many ways to cut out backgrounds and isolate objects, it sometimes seems like it was the sole purpose the program was created. We’ll attempt to take a crack at as many of those many ways as we can in this multi-part article, detailing 50+ ways backgrounds can be deleted, erased, masked, hidden, and removed. Keep reading!

Unlocking the Background vs Duplicating it

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When Photoshop opens an image, it sees it as an unlayered file, and “Locks” the background. Any attempt to erase or delete information will result in dropping back to the “background color” and not to transparancy—what you want when you try to isolate an object, or remove a background.

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Double click your Background Layer get the above dialog box and unlock it. That will transform it to a new layer called “Layer 0.” Many Photoshop purists will wag their fingers at you for using this method, as they insist that you can lose the deleted parts of your image forever. If you choose to use this “unlocking” method, make sure you save a copy of your image file under a different name to avoid overwriting any original versions you may need in the future.

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To avoid any of said finger wagging, you can Right-Click on your background layer and pick “Duplicate” to create a perfect copy of your background . You can then click the hide layer in your layers panel to hide the background layer, leaving it hidden away and intact. Either way will allow you to delete parts of your image to transparency. Both methods are about equal if you work carefully—use whichever one suits you best.

 

The Basics for Removing Objects, Backgrounds

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Most of the time, removing a background involves creating a selection that isolates an object, person, or whatever. Once that selection is created, creating a new layer usually involves some form of Copy-Paste. This seems like an excellent place to begin, considering nearly every technique will involve one of these methods or keyboard shortcuts.

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Cut, Copy, Paste: Shortcut Key (Ctrl + X, Ctrl + C, Ctrl + V)

Your basic cut and copy to clipboard functionality dating back through dozens of years of computer programs. Cut and copy are most obvious way to get your isolated selections into new layers.

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Copy Merged: Shortcut Key (Ctrl + Shift + C)

This may look like the opposite of isolating objects, but it’s useful nonetheless. If you have a huge pile of layers and a selection that goes over several of them, Copy Merged will combine them into a single layer when you paste.

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Paste In Place: Shortcut Key (Ctrl + Shift + V)

Paste has a bad habit of putting your newly copied information wherever it wants, usually in the center of your artboard. This can be annoying, so use Paste in Place to paste your new layer directly on top of where you cut it from.

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Paste Into: Shortcut Key (Alt + Ctrl + Shift + V)

If you have a selection, use Paste Into to have Photoshop automatically create a layer mask, trimming what you paste into your selection.

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Paste Outside: Shortcut Key (None)

The same basic idea as Paste Into, except in reverse. Paste Outside automatically creates a mask using whatever current selection you have as it pastes the image on your clipboard.

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Layer via Copy, Layer via Cut: Shortcut Key (Ctrl + J, Ctrl + Shift + J)

For Photoshop users that can’t be bothered to press commands for Copy and Paste, there’s Layer via Copy and Layer via Cut. In one quick motion, a Ctrl + J or Ctrl + Shift + J will copy your selection, and do a Paste in Place, aligning your new layer directly from where you copied it from.

 

Working With Selection Tools

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It’s simple to create complicated selections with the basic marquee and selection tools. Here are some basic keyboard shortcuts that can help you unlock some hidden power of selections by adding, subtracting and intersecting.

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Add Selection: Shortcut Key (Shift)

With any selection tool active (see below) hold down shift when creating new selections to add them to the current selection.

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Subtract Selection: Shortcut Key (Alt)

When using a selection tool, hold Alt to subtract any newly created selection from the existing one, creating holes in selections, or allowing you to edit out mistakes.

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Intersect Selection: Shortcut Key (Shift + Alt)

Combines two selections to pick what they have in common. With an existing selection, hold Shift and Alt, and draw a selection in your image. The pixels in common will be picked.

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Load Selection: Shortcut Key (Ctrl + Click Layer, Ctrl + Click Channel)

Holding Ctrl and clicking the thumbnail in a layer or channel will load the opaque pixels in said layer or channel. Load selection also works with Add, Subtract, and Intersect, allowing for incredibly precise selections.

 

Basic Selection Tools in Your Toolbox

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Now that we’ve covered the hidden features of the selection tools, we can take a look at the various selection tools we find in our toolbox, and some of the uses therein.

sshot-79 Rectangular Marquee: Shortcut Key (M)
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Use the rectangular marquee to draw the “marching ants” selection around any roughly square areas, and create new layers or masks with your new selection.Hold down Shift and Click  + Drag to draw squares. 

Also try: Add Selection, Subtract Selection, and Intersect Selection with this tool.

sshot-90 Elliptical Marquee: Shortcut Key (Shift + M)
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Picking the Elliptical Marquee will allow you to draw selections around your circular and elliptical shaped areas you want to isolate or mask.Hold down Shift and Click  + Drag to draw perfect circles. 

Also try: Add Selection, Subtract Selection, and Intersect Selection with this tool.

sshot-83 Lasso: Shortcut Key (L)
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Select the lasso to draw freeform lines around your object, in any shape you can mouse or draw with your stylus. Once selected, copy to a new layer or use masks to block off the unwanted areas in your layer.Hold down Alt and release the mouse button to quickly switch to the Polygonal Lasso. 

Also try: Add Selection, Subtract Selection, and Intersect Selection with this tool.

sshot-86 Polygonal Lasso: Shortcut Key (Shift + L)
polygonal lasso
The Polygonal Lasso allows you to draw straight lines between points you create with clicks of your mouse. An excellent way to draw precise angular selections quickly, without the pain of clicking and dragging.Hold down Alt and release the mouse button to quickly switch to the regular Lasso Tool. 

Also try: Add Selection, Subtract Selection, and Intersect Selection with this tool.

sshot-84 Magnetic Lasso: Shortcut Key (Shift + L)
magnetic lasso
The Magnetic Lasso uses Photoshop’s edge detect to snap to the edges of objects. In cases where the edges are clear to the program, this is a decent way to isolate an object. Often, it offers a rough, somewhat poor selection.Hold down Alt to quickly switch to either the regular lasso or the Polygonal Lasso in this mode. 

Also try: Add Selection, Subtract Selection, and Intersect Selection with this tool.

sshot-88 Magic Wand: Shortcut Key (W)
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Working similar to the Bucket Fill, the magic wand creates a selection of touching, adjacent similar colors.In the options panel, deselect “contiguous” to find all similar colors in the entire document, regardless of whether they touch or not. 

Also try: Add Selection, Subtract Selection, and Intersect Selection with this tool.

sshot-93 Quick Selection Tool: Shortcut Key (Shift + W)
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Another rough edge-detecting tool, Quick Selection will provide a basic outline when the program can easily find edges. Depending on how you “paint” with Quick Selection, Photoshop may find more or less of your object.Also try: Add Selection, Subtract Selection, and Intersect Selection with this tool.

 

Combinations of these tools and techniques already offer users a wide range of easy, precise, and serviceable ways to remove backgrounds and isolate objects. However, Photoshop still has perhaps hundreds of ways to remove backgrounds—many of which we’ll cover, starting in part 2 of “50+ Ways to Remove Image Backgrounds.”

 


Image Credits: Bald eagle by Arpingstone, in public domain. Osprey image by NASA, in public domain. Lens Apeture Side by MarkSweep, in public domain.

Eric Z Goodnight is an Illustrator and Graphics Geek who hopes to make Photoshop more accessible to How-To Geek readers. When he’s not headbanging to heavy metal or geeking out over manga, he’s often off screen printing T-Shirts.

  • Published 04/28/11

Comments (13)

  1. Gary

    Any chance of getting similar tutorials for Paint.net?

  2. Graeme McKay

    Oh yes please – more info for Paint.net !!!

  3. Harold

    I would appreciate a similar series of “how-to” articles, which are focused for the GNU Image Manipulation Program, GIMP. (www.gimp.org)

    I use GIMP at home, since I am not willing to spend the money for PhotoShop.

    Thanks!

  4. Hatryst

    I’m sure there are 100 more ways to remove backgrounds :)
    Keep it uph !!

  5. Steve

    Outstanding article! I have Photoshop and its the only program I can’t seem to understand. I sure would like to know how to creat banner headers for web apages. Keep it up HTG!

  6. Eric

    @Harold
    Photoshop and Gimp works pretty much the same way, the difference is that Gimp is free. I use both at home.
    By the way, you can actually get Photoshop for free ;)

  7. Savage Digital Backgrounds

    What a great write up on these Photoshop tools!!

  8. ThrDude

    @Eric
    Only if you illegally download it. In NO way is Adobe Photoshop free, we all have to buy it at one point or another

  9. polly

    Eric-even tho Photoshop and Gimp work pretty much the same way, Photoshop seems to have quite a bit that Gimp doesn’t, so for all of us Other Than Photoshop users would it be possible to include in your Photoshop tutorials which aspects are and are not usable in Gimp or Paint.net,etc
    Thanx
    Oh, and is there a way to get Photoshop for free legally???

  10. Tim

    You forgot to mention the Quick Mask tool, which is so much easier than combining selections using add and subtract. There’s also a piece of software called Mask Pro from OnOneSoftware (google it) that allows you to isolate images through color selection instead of Photoshop’s edge detection. I did a high resolution image isolation with tons of hair in about 3 seconds. It’s worth the money and is useful for photographers

  11. Rajneesh Gadge

    @Eric
    Thanks again Eric for this very informative article. You Rock!! \m/

    @Tim
    Thanks for the info mate will try that Mask Pro ;)

  12. Graycat

    Yes, it would be wonderful to have tutorials like this for Paint and other art programs. Not all of us can afford the Photoshop software but still create special projects where these tools would be extremely helpful. Love this “How To Geek”. I’ve learned so much ………..

  13. Poochiesan

    Corel PaintShop Pro info would be appreciated. Thanks

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